For American Catholics the most important publishing event in 1987 was the appearance of George Weigel’s magisterial study of Catholic thought on war and peace, Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford University Press). Mr. Weigel had the bravery to indict virtually the entire American Catholic establishment for having abandoned this long tradition of “ordered liberty.”
I introduce this point by way of offering congratulations to Peter Steinfels, who has served many faithful years as editor of Commonweal, our sister journal and sometime antagonist, for his appointment this month as religion editor of the New York Times. To the pages of the Times, Mr. Steinfels will no doubt bring distinction, as did John Cogley, the pioneer in that position two decades ago. That a post so eminent in American culture should again go to a Catholic is a “sign of the times.” The late 1980s and the 1990s do, indeed, represent what Richard John Neuhaus calls “the Catholic moment.” (About “the Catholic moment” Crisis will soon have much more to say.)
At Commonweal Peter Steinfels tried hard to be an eminently fair man, in the tradition established by John Cogley, James O’Gara, Philip Scharper, James Finn, Daniel Callahan, and many others down the years. For this Mr. Steinfels deserves even more credit than the others, since his own ideological leanings were so expressly far to the left both of his predecessors and of the national mainstream. During much of his tenure, he proudly called himself a democratic socialist.
In this light, Mr. Steinfels will no doubt be remembered for two unprecedented acts as editor, constituting two of his longest efforts in journalism. Not only did he see to it that George Weigel’s crucial work received a timely and long review. He reviewed the Weigel classic himself, not only at review-length, but at article-length; indeed, not only at article-length, but in two articles dominating two entire issues of Commonweal, just as five years earlier, he had established the same unusual precedent with respect to my own modest volume, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (an Italian translation of which appeared in Rome last month, with a long and groundbreaking introduction by Father Angelo Tosato of the Pontifical Biblical Commission). I cannot testify that his reviews, either of my own book or of Mr. Weigel’s, ended up being fair; Mr. Steinfels was far too passionate an antagonist for that. But to receive so much attention, even hostile attention, is better than to be ignored.
The burden of Mr. Steinfels’ two articles contra Weigel is defemsove. After cutting his mammoth manuscript to publishable size, Weigel cites at great length incontestable evidence that Commonweal, among other organs of the Catholic establishment, had significantly abandoned the mainstream Catholic theological tradition on war and peace. To this serious charge, Steinfels now adds confirmation, modifying Weigel only to the extent that Steinfels, as editor in charge of Commonweal, did not believe that Commonweal was quite as guilty as Weigel charged. Steinfels did not attack Weigel’s underlying thesis concerning the nature of the authentic Catholic tradition. Nor did Steinfels deny the, let us say, ambivalence of Commonweal with respect to that tradition during a crucial period. Instead, the Steinfels defense was that Commonweal was guilty in a lesser degree than Weigel judged. In many thousands of words, Steinfels does not rebut Weigel’s general charge, backed up with quotations from other journals.
Commonweal is not alone, of course. The entire Catholic leftward establishment is reacting defensively, with embarrassment and measurable hostility, to Weigel’s heavily documented thesis. Their discomfiture is evident. That the Catholic establishment moved remarkably to the left from 1965 to 1985 can scarcely be denied. Indeed, that fact is the major rock on which the Catholic left regularly bases its presumed moral superiority. Do they now wish to tell us that they have been conservative all along?
We at Crisis note with a certain pleasure the sudden, crabwise movement of the establishment journals of the Catholic press — Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter, America, Theological Studies, and others — away from their more extreme tendencies; toward protection behind the stellar works of John Courtney Murray, S.J., Jacques Maritain, and Reinhold Niebuhr; and toward increasingly ringing claims of full traditional orthodoxy. For that purpose, after all, Crisis was founded five years ago.
Thus if our friends announce, paraphrasing Richard Nixon, that “We are all conservatives now,” Crisis expresses satisfaction. Meanwhile, we rejoice at the honor paid our colleague: greatest success at the Times, Peter, and also to Margaret Steinfels who will replace you at Commonweal — an excellent choice. To both of you: Ad multos annos!